What Would Lincoln Do?
"Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh."
One of the often quoted facts about the American Civil War is that more Americans died in it than died in all the other wars combined. The number of American Civil War dead is estimated at approximately 620,000 people. The President who presided over this carnage we regard as our greatest. Why do you think that is, dear reader? Isn't it at least a little strange?Before you answer, let me suggest we take a moment to read Lincoln's own thoughts on this carnage. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln spoke of man's intentions and man's relationship to God, in an attempt to puzzle out the meaning of so much terrible death. Referring to both sides of the war, Lincoln reflected:
"Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. 'Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.' If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"
We do well to admire Abraham Lincoln as our finest president, not because he chose war, but because he recognized war as the worst fate a nation could have inflicted upon it.
Earlier in the address, Lincoln stated, "While [my first] inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war-seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came."
Lincoln acknowledged the urgent desire for diplomacy on both sides of the conflict, recognized the principle driving each side into battle, and stated the case honestly to the American people. He made no claim to either glory or righteousness, but simply stated the principles that required war to come. When it came to the principles of the other side, he said, "Let us judge not, that we be not judged." Lincoln understood that before the intelligence that created humanity in the midst of our vast universe, human kind was in no position to grandstand. He spoke of God, but a God that remained a mystery.
Lincoln also appreciated that before the thousands of dead piling up under his command, he was in no position to speak of victory. Whatever happened as the nation found its way out of war, the American people had paid dearly and, as the leader of our nation, Lincoln understood it was his role to show us what it was we were paying for.
When the currency in use is the blood of the people, a nation does not "purchase" anything, but pays a moral debt instead, which it could neither escape nor fulfill with any other currency. This debt is the debt of the entire nation, not just that of the perpetrators. In preserving our union, Lincoln understood he committed himself to pay the consequences of our founding fathers' decision to choose unity with a slave-holding Southern culture.
We do well to remember this President who we justly admire as our finest today while we continue to choose unity with a president who is our worst.
A brief comparison of the two is indeed enough to make us feel ill. We do well to feel ill under President George W. Bush.
In two paragraphs of Abraham Lincoln's thought, we have identified 8 noteworthy qualities demonstrating Lincoln's advanced humanity: (1) He appreciated the gravity of the death toll caused by war; (2) He was aware of both side's commitment to diplomacy; (3) He made his decision to go to war based on a clear and just principle; (4) He communicated his reasoning honestly, eloquently, and effectively; (5) He avoided becoming self-righteous and judgmental toward his enemies; (6) He understood that God and the ways of God are a mystery to humanity; (7) He understood that war is an awful fate, not a means of victory; (8) He understood that human blood never purchases anything of value, but is spent either to incur or to repay a terrible moral debt.
Now let's consider how advanced is the humanity of George W. Bush.
1. Death Toll: Whereas Lincoln was clearly pained by the war dead piling up, the U.S. government and military under Bush do not even bother to count Iraqi casualties and are dismissive of suggestions that they should. But the dead are piling up all the same.
Whereas 620,000 died in the American Civil War, last year Europe's most prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journal, The Lancet, published a report that 654,965 had died in Iraq since the U.S. attacked and invaded it. A month ago, the public interest organization, Just Foreign Policy, published a report setting the number of war dead in Iraq at over a million. Today, the same organization reports the estimated number of people killed in Iraq since the U.S. invasion to be 1,060,494. Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that ORB, a British polling agency that has conducted several polls in Iraq, estimated that there have been 1.2 million civilian casualties since the war began-that's twice the amount that died in our American Civil War. What is the meaning of all these Iraqi lives lost? Bush does not count them or address them. Lincoln would.
2. Diplomacy: Whereas every effort at diplomacy was made to avoid the Civil War, we know that the efforts of the George W. Bush administration were focused on manufacturing false intelligence and propaganda instead. Instead of recognizing the diplomatic commitment on both sides of the dispute, Bush actively engineered false accusations against the Iraqis in order to instigate unprovoked warfare. Far from trying to avoid bloodshed, Bush chose a go-it-alone approach that demonized nations like France and Germany who hesitated to start a war.
3. Principle: Whereas Lincoln says in his Second Inaugural Address that "All knew that this interest [slavery] was somehow the cause of the war," Bush adamantly denied what everyone suspected and what has since been confirmed: the desire to steal oil was the cause of the Iraq war. Rather than communicate an honest and just principle, such as, "we must fight to preserve our union," Bush relied on nationalistic, flag waving propaganda and the assertion of a completely false connections between Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction and al Qaeda. These fraudulent claims were merely a smokescreen for an unprincipled act of theft and physical domination.
4. Honesty and Eloquence: Rather than be judged on the true motives behind the Iraq invasion, Bush lied to the nation during the sacred tradition of the State of the Union address while standing at the podium within the people's house of government. Then he had his Secretary of State, the face of American diplomacy, lie to the world in the United Nation's Security Council. Just as there is a connection between Abraham Lincoln's eloquence and his principled intelligence, so too is there a connection between Bush's notoriously mangled grasp of the English language and the lack of principle or intellectual foundation in his character. When your humanity is advanced so also is your ability to communicate. One doesn't come without the other. In Bush, it's obvious we get neither.
5. Self-Righteous and Non-Judgmental: Whereas one can feel the weight of wartime atrocities upon every word in Lincoln's speech, what we hear from George W. Bush is that the Iraqi nation he pulverized needs to step up the plate and show that it is committed to "freedom" and "democracy." In addition to repeatedly referring to the enemy as "evil-doers" and refusing to acknowledge that he ever directly made any mistake in pursuing unprovoked war in Iraq, Bush now blithely blames the Iraqi people and the government he installed for delaying a U.S. exit.
6. God: Whereas Lincoln is introspective and accepting of the hardships that accompany his own fate, George Bush uses God as authority for his own political campaign and conduct of warfare. Whereas to Lincoln the will of God is a mystery, to George Bush, the will of God is as clear to him as his own mind (which may not be saying much). For example, while campaigning for office in 1999, Bush said, "I believe God wants me to be president." When Bob Woodward asked him if he asked his father for advice regarding going to war with Iraq, Bush replied: "He is the wrong father to appeal to for advice. The wrong father to go to, to appeal to in terms of strength. There's a higher Father that I appeal to." And in July 2004, over a year into the Iraq War, Bush told one gathering of supporters, "I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn't do my job."
If God speaks through Bush, he does so like he spoke through the American Civil War. God is not offering guidance through the mouth of our infamously inarticulate president, but only offenses. As the Biblical passage invoked by Lincoln says, "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh."
7. Victory: We all remember the pictures of George W. Bush in his false fighter pilot outfit standing on the deck of the aircraft carrier with the huge banner reading, "Mission Accomplished." Just last week, Bush argued that "the principle guiding my decisions on troop levels in Iraq is 'return on success,'" Bush does not view war as the worst of all fates, but as a means to success. War is not the worst of all fates to Bush, because he never had to worry about serving in a war. The 1,000 more American lives that will be lost while he postures about success seem to be a distant reality to him. To the extent that he is aware of the almost 4,000 Americans already killed in Iraq, he has determinedly marginalized their fate by avoiding attending funerals for fallen soldiers and by preventing the press from photographing the flag draped coffins that come home from Iraq. More importantly, unlike Lincoln, Bush does not weigh the cost of war in terms of human lives lost on all sides. As noted above, Iraqi deaths are not counted by the United States. Whereas Lincoln was keenly aware of the tremendous losses suffered by the South, to Bush, the Iraqi deaths are not part of his calculations.
8. Moral Debt: Of course, the real, glaring difference between the American Civil War and the American invasion and occupation of Iraq is that, in the former, a real conflict existed that led to the war, whereas, in the latter, the war was instigated without cause. In the American Civil War the conflict was at heart over a deeply inhumane and immoral seed that had been allowed to take root and to flourish in the soil of our nation. Pulling up the brutal harvest of slavery would cost us great quantities of our blood. Lincoln came to see that this was America's tragic fate.
But it was not part of America's destiny to become inextricably mired in "shock and awe," torture, and every kind of disgrace to humanity in Iraq. George Bush and his puppet masters chose this course for our nation by stealing the presidency, lying to us, deceiving us, abusing the power of his office and corrupting the integrity of our political process. Nor do the Iraqi's have any share in this tragic war. There is no moral obligation that arises from suffering a tyrant. Yet the Iraqi's have spilled twice as much blood as we spilled in our Civil War. What will come of all this blood?
When we compare our greatest president with our worst, we learn that the war that took more American lives than any other had a tragic meaning, but a meaning nonetheless. By contrast, this current war, which has cost twice the number of lives of an innocent nation, is completely meaningless. Faced with such a horrendous realization, we are forced to ask: In our position, what would Lincoln do? What lesson would Lincoln draw from our current condition and what path would he recommend?
If his Second Inaugural Address is any indication, Lincoln would look inside himself to understand his responsibility in this moment, an act which President George W. Bush seems to misunderstand. The rest of us, following Lincoln's example, would then realize that if the Iraq war is without meaning because it is not repaying a moral debt for past inhumanity, then there can only be one other possible conclusion. Rather than repaying a deep and dark debt to humanity, we are incurring one. This is the choice we make in choosing unity with our President. If we do not want to have to pay this debt in blood a century from now, as earlier generations did in our Civil War, then we must cast our president out of office and hold him culpable for his war crimes.
This I believe is what Lincoln would do. He would do it to save our nation the terrible fate that befell him and the nation he loved. He would see that there is no principle in standing united with an incompetent, authoritarian and religiously delusional president. He would urge us to impeach him and then to try him for war crimes for the sake of our children's humanity.
Hank Edson is an author, activist and attorney based in San Francisco. His blog, MP3--My Politics and Progressive Perspective, can be found at: http://hankedson.squarespace.com/.